As Georgia Supreme Court expands, Governor casts long shadow

James Bryan

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By the time he leaves office in 2018, Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal will appoint five Georgia Supreme Court justices.

Three will come in January as the court expands, and a 1961 Grady graduate, Harris Hines, now a presiding justice, will become chief justice of the court.

Two new seats will be added to the Supreme Court in January. There will be nine justices on the bench, and the governor’s five appointments will make up a majority of the court.

According to Ballotpedia.org, Deal has made 68 judicial appointments throughout state courts. Such a large impression on a single branch of government can have momentous implications for the future of the state.

“You tend to appoint court of appeals judges [to the Supreme Court] who have been judges before,” said Mike Terry, a partner at the Atlanta law firm Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore “Then that gives [the governor] trial judge appointments, so it is a cascading effect, and he will then have an enormous effect on the jurisprudence of the state for decades to come.”

Governor-sponsored House Bill 927 passed with little resistance in the state legislature in March and primarily expands the Supreme Court, but it also shifts jurisdiction between other state courts. In addition to the two new seats, Chief Justice Hugh Thompson will retire in January, vacating a third seat. Gov. Deal has already appointed one justice to the court, Associate Justice Keith Blackwell in 2012, and his fifth appointment will come after Hines’ retirement.

Ryan Teague, executive counsel to the governor, helped write the new law expanding the court. Teague works with state representatives and advises the governor in the appointment process. He said Gov. Deal puts a lot of time and effort into the appointments.

“I will sit down with the governor, and he and I will interview all the people that made that list, and I will just assist him in any direction he wants to go,” Teague said. “[The governor] has always taken the approach of appointing the best lawyers to be on the court — quality people who are smart, forward thinking and are committed to being there a long time.

According to Teague, 51 people applied to be justices. The governor will eventually receive a short list of about 15 applicants from a judicial interview commission and will begin to interview the candidates in mid-October.

Although the governor hasn’t asked for Thompson’s assistance, the chief justice is sure the appointment committee will do its job.

“The appointment process is already underway, and I feel very confident that it is going to yield some very good replacements,” Thompson said.

Hines and Thompson have been long-time colleagues and friends, and were both appointed to the Supreme Court under Gov. Zell Miller. They also agree on pressing concerns, with both pointing to Georgia’s growing population as a need for additional justices.

“Obviously, the more people you have, the more legal interactions and concerns come about,” Hines said.

Teague agrees the court expansion is a major part of Deal’s time in office, but is not the central point of his administration.

“The approach he has taken with the judiciary will certainly be a legacy, but I don’t think it will be the defining part of his administration, but somebody 10 years from now will probably figure that out better than us,” Teague said.

Although Teague believes the appointments will have a positive effect on Gov. Deal’s legacy, Terry said the expansion is disputed among State Bar members.

“There are a lot of mixed feelings in the bar about this,” Terry said. “I would say it is controversial, but not hugely so.”

House Bill 927 shifts jurisdiction to the Court of Appeals from the Supreme Court. With more justices, but a lighter workload, many question the need for the bill. According to Terry, some bar members view the expansion as a power move to let the governor make the court more conservative. However, Terry disagrees.

“I think people who try and guess how justices will vote based on their former party affiliation or the party affiliation of the governor who appointed them are frequently wrong,” Terry said. “There is not a conservative or liberal view on most cases, there is just the law.”

While Terry, who has worked at Bondurant, Mixson & Elmore for 29 years, does not see the need for the expansion, he does not believe the expansion will have an immediate or major effect on his firm and other private firms across the state.

“The Supreme Court rules on every case as an entire panel, so every case will now be ruled on by nine justices instead of seven, but that is not really going to change much how we prepare, argue or brief things,” he said.

Hines, the Grady alum, also believes the immediate impact of the expansion on the justices will be minimal.

“While [the justices] will have some disagreements on some philosophical and legal matters, that is fine as well it should be,” Hines said. “But as far as getting along, I think we will welcome these new members and get along with them real well.”

Although neither Thompson nor Hines commented on the future political affiliations of the court, they agreed the changes would be beneficial in the long run.

“If you think about a braided rope, it is blended together in a way that blends out any imperfection or any weakness any individual might have,” Thompson said. “It is much, much stronger than the sum of the parts.” 

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